Monday, December 31, 2007

It's winter in New Mexico. Many of my friends in San Diego don't understand why I would go out of my way to be somewhere where it's cold and snowy.

This is the gate to my front courtyard. I love this gate, and my courtyard, and I love it when the world gets quietly etched in black and white, and all the other colors are muted. It's silent. It's peaceful. It makes my mind quiet down and rest. To me, this is the gift that winter brings.
I wish all of you a peaceful, prosperous and especially healthy New Year. Here's to the many meals ahead to be shared with friends and loved ones in 2008.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tex-Mex style chili

Every December, San Diego has it's "Parade of Lights". Boat owners get into the holiday spirit by stringing lights all over their boats and parading through San Diego harbor. Usually there's a theme, and this year's had to do with pirates, though I couldn't tell you the exact name. I have a friend with a sailboat, and we usually gather on her boat, motor out into the bay and watch the parade from a genuinely front row seat. This year, however, the engine on her boat wasn't working very well, so a group of us decided to have a pot luck on a grassy area by the bay instead.

I heard about the mulled wine and the hot spiced apple cider that was coming, as well as a hot bean dip and some spanikopita. Well, those all sounded perfectly wonderful, but there was no main dish. Now, I'm not averse to eating hors d'oevres for dinner. Not at all. In fact, I do it often. But somehow, being outside on a cool evening - well, cool by San Diego standards anyway! - I just needed something a little more substantial. We had all decided that the majority of the food should be hot, as the evening promised to be cool. I wasn't into cooking anything fancy, as I've been busy getting ready for my upcoming trip to New Mexico this Thursday.

And suddenly it dawned on me. I own a crock pot! Haven't used it in years, but I still own one! It's almost a Donna Reed kind of thing, even though I'm not sure if crock pots were invented in her day. But it kinda made me want to put on an apron, curl my hair and put Ponds Cold Cream all over my face. A crock pot - that wonderful invention that turns anything and everything into stew or soup. The kind of thing that's made for pot lucks. The kind of thing that actually manages to keep food pretty warm even when it's not plugged in. All I needed was a car with fins, and I'd have the whole thing down. But alas, my car lacks those spectacular additions that make no sense other than to say "Whoooopppeee! Look at me!" So I tooled off to my pot luck dinner with my Tex-Mex style chili in a decidedly 2002 style car. Ah well....No one's perfect!

Anyway, I decided that this was going to be a down and dirty, non-gourmet kind of thing. And since no one out here knows the difference between New Mexican style chili and Tex-Mex chili, I decided I'd give them what they all think of as chili. That is to say, I'd give them something that contained meat and beans and tomatoes. No self respecting New Mexican would even think of adding tomatoes to chili!!! Or beans, for that matter! In New Mexico, beans are served on their own. Separately from chili. You can put chili on top of beans if you like, but you never mix the two and call it chili. And tomatoes? Those belong in salads. Maybe a few sprinkled on top of your rolled enchilada for color, but that's much more of a Taco Bell kind of thing. If you find it in someone's home, it's because they've adopted it from another culture.

So what is New Mexican chili? If it's green, it's basically onions, garlic, chilis, oregano and cumin cooked in oil with maybe some corn starch and water or chicken stock as a thickener. That's it. If it's red, then a paste is made from pureeing the red chilis after they've had their seeds removed, and then soaked in water to soften. Many people will add garlic to red chili as well as green. So when you go to a restaurant in New Mexico, they will ask you "red or green?" That's the only question. Whatever color you choose, they will add that kind of chili to your dish. If one of you wants red and the other wants green, they simply add the appropriate color chili to the meat or beans you've ordered. It's easy because the meat and the beans have been cooked separately, without the chili.

The Tex-Mex style incorporates beans and meat in with the chili. There's usually tomatoes in there, too. Many recipes will tell you to use chili powder - the kind you buy in a supermarket. I think the last time I looked at one of those tins, it contained mostly oregano and possibly other herbs and very little chili. I used a red chili powder for my chili, but it was nothing more than dried and ground up red chilis from Hatch, New Mexico. Since I was feeding people who have various tolerances for spicy, I kept mine on the very mild side. People loved it! It was the first dish to disappear. I'm happy about that, but I'll be happier when I'm eating what I consider to be the "real thing." A little smoke coming out of my ears, tears running down my cheeks and the requisite sopapilla with honey as the antidote sounds just about perfect to me.

Meanwhile, here's the
down and dirty, Donna Reed, crock pot version of Tex-Mex chili. Just don't tell your friends where you got it - OK? But do tell me what your favorite dish to bring to a pot luck is! I need ideas!
Chop an onion and sautee it in some canola oil with some chopped garlic. I used 3 cloves. Add ground meat. I used ground turkey, (This IS California, after all!), but you can mix and match whatever kind of meat you like. Add a dash of oregano, salt, pepper and some kind of hot chili powder. If you can't get ground red chilis, you can use cans of green chili. Those are usually pretty mild. If you want more heat, use some Hungarian paprika. (When you mix red and green chili it's called Chili Colorado.) Or if you're like me and like it hot, you can dice up some jalapenos and add them. Just remember to remove the seeds first, and then don't, under any circumstances, touch your face or your eyes! When the meat is browned, add a can of beans. I used pintos, but kidney beans work too. Then add a can of chopped tomatoes. Stir, simmer, taste and correct seasonings. One thing I like to add when using tomatoes is fennel seeds. There's something about the combination of fennel and tomato that I like. I'll use it in everything from marinara sauce to moussaka. It may not be the usual addition to chili, but once you open the doors to tinkering, what's to stop a little fennel seed from blowing in?

I'll be in New Mexico from Thursday, the 20th, through the first of January. I'm not sure if I'll post any recipes during that time, but I will have my camera with me. I want to wish all of you the absolute best holiday season ever! I can't believe I started this blog in January of this year. It's been almost a year now, and I have "met" some of the nicest people on the planet through this little blog. So thanks to all of you who have read my posts, made comments and encouraged me this past year. I can't tell you how many times you've brought a smile to my face! And it's been my privilege to read your wonderful posts. There are some amazingly talented people out there in foodblogville. Some of the best writers and photographers I've seen in a long time - not to mention some phenomenal recipes! So thank you, thank you, and thank you again for being part of my life for this past year!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

100% Whole Wheat Desem Bread

Dear God, what have I gotten myself into? I'm not sure what came over me. Well, that's not entirely true. I know where the inspiration came from, but I really don't know why I decided to go for it. And now I'm thinking I've gotten myself into something that may not have an exit, other than death. Not mine, necessarily, but death of some organisms I've been sharing my kitchen with for maybe 2 months now. Or more. I can't remember my life before them.

It began when the lovely Susan of The Well Seasoned Cook sent me an Amish Friendship Bread starter. "Oh, how quaint", I thought. It took me back to the days when my friends were passing such things along, and we all had time to bake and turned out lovely breads. Those were the New Mexican years, and for those of you who have followed this blog for a while, you know how dearly I hold those memories. I had a garden. I worked as a potter in my studio. I baked bread and even learned to turn out some decent flour tortillas. I learned to cook from my husband, who was absolutely one of the best chefs I've ever known. (The way to this girl's heart was definitely through her stomach!) I learned photography and bird watching and how to play in the winter (ski). I even tried my hand at sewing, although that never ever ever was my strong suit!

So when I got this Amish Friendship Bread Starter, it reminded me of when I used to bake bread. Other than banana bread, the only bread I truly got into was one I found in Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book - Flemish Desem Bread. It's by far and away the most lengthy recipe in this book -- she devotes 24 pages to desem (pronounced day-zum) bread and it's variations. I have no idea who Laurel is, but having re-visited this recipe and actually having been insane enough to do it YET AGAIN, I'm thinking she must have been a Birkenstock wearing hippie chick, and I must have been having a flash back.

Now, there are things about desem bread which are flat out fabulous. Desem, which is Flemish for "starter", is a bread which was baked over 100 years ago before commercial yeast was produced in laboratories. So for people who have candida or other problems with yeast, this bread is a blessing. It can be made with a variety of grains, such as spelt and kamut, so for people with wheat allergies, it can provide a delicious bread that doesn't produce an allergic reaction. Because the fermentation process is so slow and cool, it breaks down the phytic acid that binds the minerals in the grains, so the bread is more nutritious. It has no dairy or fat in it either.

Sounds good, yes? Well, my memories of the desem bread I used to bake were fabulous. I remember it being the most satisfying bread I ever had in my life. I'm certain that part of the reason for that came from the fact that in those days, I used to buy wheat berries from a health food store in Albuquerque whose friendly staff would then grind them for me to make flour. Starting with freshly ground flour is something that truly does produce a different bread than using anything else - even fresh whole wheat flour from Whole Foods. The other major difference was the water. The house we lived in had a well which was over 200 feet deep. The water we drank was, to my mind, the best water I had ever tasted. Since this bread uses flour, water and salt as it's ingredients, it's pretty easy to understand that if you have the freshest flour, the best water, and any kind of salt, you are going to produce an outstanding bread. Even if you don't have a brick oven - which is what they claim it takes to make the very best desem bread. And even if you, like me, start with a starter which is made with yeast and milk. The fermenting process is quite long, and requires many feedings. Since I never added anything other than whole wheat flour and water to the original starter, at this point whatever else was in there only exists in homeopathic proportions. I don't think it influences the final product anymore.

At any rate, I got sucked me into the fantasy that I could produce that same bread here in San Diego. The reality, however, is quite different. I did buy organic whole wheat flour, and I used my filtered water, but the end result was less satisfying than what I used to bake back in the day....The first time I baked the bread, it had the weight of a brick. I was a little nervous about cutting it - even with my bread knife. It was not exactly a friendly loaf. A machete would probably have been a better tool. The next batch was a bit better - a little bit lighter, but still not worth all those feedings.
The third batch actually produced an edible bread, though still not the bread of my memories. This one at least yielded itself to the bread knife. It was quite delicious with peanut butter, and had it not separated a bit at the bottom, would probably have even been reasonably good for sandwiches.

This last time, however, I couldn't bring myself to go through with the bread recipe. (It takes 7 hours from start to finish.) I decided to turn my attention to Larel's alternative recipes for desem. I got up enough courage to have another go of it and try her desem yeasted buns, only with a Toni twist. Instead of using 100% whole wheat, I used 50-50 whole wheat and unbleached white flour. Frankly, for the ingredients I've got at my disposal these days, I think this was the way to go. My desem, or starter, is still 100% whole wheat and shall remain so, but I'm thinking that what I will bake with it will not be.Which is too bad, actually. Because if I could produce that beautiful bread again, I would do so in a heartbeat. Well, actually it would take many, many, many heartbeats. But it would be worth it, because a slice or 2 of that bread with some butter in the morning with my tea would satisfy me for hours and hours. However, without the quality of those 2 basic ingredients, I don't see that it's possible to reproduce my former results.At least I have the memories.

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